Saturday, June 29, 2019

Wondering About Fossil Fuels

Christianity Today in June 2019 published a lengthy article about the fossil fuel resource of petroleum. The magazine cover background was a colorful depiction of an oil slick on water to backdrop the title “God Gave Us Oil—Should We Keep Using It?” Only indirectly did the article by Ken Bakke, associate professor of English and of the Climate Center of Texas Tech University, refer to other fossil fuel resources. The same concerns Bakke expressed about petroleum could apply to the other “big three” fossil fuels—coal and natural gas.

Bakke relates the story of Edwin L. Drake in western Pennsylvania in 1859 who drilled the first successful oil well. Drake discovered a landmark technology for oil well drilling. “What followed was arguably the most rapid economic and cultural transformation of the world,” according to Bakke. Many theologians and historians credited God for the gift of plentiful oil at this point in human history. In the next century, “…America had powered itself to world dominance—with oil fueling the engine of its growth and prosperity.” Coal had earlier launched the Industrial Revolution, supplanting the energy formerly supplied by wind, wood, and water power.

In the late 18th century, “when economic and and technological advancements, enabled by coal and then oil, lengthened life expectancies and sent the population soaring on a near vertical trajectory to 7.7 billion today,” many things changed in our energy outlook. Oil has, indeed, been a gift from God. In like manner, we may relate the same for coal and the recently enhanced vision of the role of natural gas which has been discovered in many new deposits such as the Marcellus Shale in the Northeastern US.

The term Creator of All Things (Colossians 1:16) applies to the actions of God over eons of time. His creative work in our early universe and later when our galaxy and Solar System became physical realities spanned billions of years as humans reckon time. The work of God is not time constrained. People are subject to time awareness, limitations, and restrictions. God is not limited by constraints of time as are humans. People tend to construct historical timelines along which events are pinpointed. Actions of The Creator of All Things may extend over millions of years. So it is with fossil fuels formed over a sequence of changing conditions over many millions of years.

Ken Bakke’s wide-ranging six page article in CT recounts the millions of years of geologic processes which formed present day petroleum deposits upon which our modern societal growth and prosperity is firmly anchored. His account, though brief, is accurate: “There is no denying oil’s awesome power, harnessed from solar energy sequestered in simple ocean organisms that sank over eons to the sea floor. Under intense pressure, this dead carbon formed deposits that when mined and refined have such pent-up strength—as petroleum engineers like to tell it—that a mere teacup of gasoline can move a 1,000-pound vehicle a mile up a mountain road.” Coal was formed from land plant deposits formed in swampy areas and buried under layers of sediment. Over millions of year, algae, zooplankton and land plants were transformed into petroleum and coal. Pressure and heat chemically altered the organic materials into a multitude of different products accessible by multiple modern refining processes.

One cannot read or listen to media reports without encountering a heavy dose of climate change discussion. The climate change topic has thoroughly suffused our modern awareness. We are aware that the consumption of fossil fuels has elevated the CO2 content of the atmosphere by roughly 35%. Most of this increase has occurred in the past 75 years since the mid-20th century. Most 70 to 80-year old residents do not recall a climate change or global warming discussion when they attended high school. Currently we are aware that global temperature elevation, sea level rise, and perceived increases in the potency of weather events, are a source of concern for many 21st century residents. Modern belief is that increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) is causative. There is little doubt that some global temperature increase is related to this cause but the magnitude of cause is in hot dispute. The science of climate change does not settle the argument concerning magnitude. Climate issues are exceedingly complex. GHGs are but one of multiple causes. Judgment of the amount of effect is connected with sometimes errant scientific analysis, intense ideology, and powerful politics. This results in disagreements about which solutions are appropriate, not to mention disagreements concerning how to implement them.

Bakke highlights “…the late 18th century, when economic and technological advances, enabled by coal and then oil, lengthened life expectancies and sent the population soaring on a near vertical trajectory to 7.7 billion today.” Most people in our population recognize these advancements. Bakke continues with an outline of the main concerns of his CT article: “Unquestionably, for our forebears and for so many of us, oil indeed has been a gift of God. Why then, in the public square today are oil and other fossil fuels increasingly spoken of as the source of looming catastrophe, like an addictive substance from which we are anxious to wean ourselves?”

The 2019-20 presidential campaign in the US has triggered extreme attention for the candidates for solving the problems perceived to be looming ‘catastrophically’ over the human race. We do not minimize legitimate concerns about climate change but we decry unjustified unrealistic alarmist solutions such as making our energy use “carbon free.” It has become the cause célèbre of many activists.

In the same manner in which discovery, drilling, mining, and refining technologies have enabled scientists to utilize God-given resources and abilities, we may be confident that many new technologies will enable us to continue to use fossil fuel resources to drive world growth and prosperity. Above all, we need wisdom from the Creator of All Things, including the Creator of fossil fuels. 





Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fossil Fueled Civilization

Petroleum, natural gas, and coal have been recent additions to the energy needs of civilized Earth residents. In general, these fossil fuels have come to full prominence in the last 150 years. While these fuels have helped power the fantastic growth of human population since 1800 and have contributed to the progress of our modern technological society, we are aware that consumption of fossil fuels has become a source of depressing worry for some residents owing to concerns about the release of the element carbon into the atmosphere. “Is the glass half full or half empty?” we ask. For the balance of this post, we recall a wonderful memory from our childhood.    

For the first thirteen years of my life I was privileged to live next door to my grandfather’s 150-acre farm in Baldwinsville, New York. In two minutes I could walk to the home site of many farm and wild animals I came to know and love. The farm property virtually surrounded my family’s nearby home, providing ready access to its barns, buildings, fields, woods, and creeks. I explored all of them with a sense of high adventure. In retrospect, I am grateful my constant presence was tolerated, even welcomed by my grandfather and uncles.

One may ask how the preceding information relates to the topic of fossil fuels. When my grandparents purchased the Central New York farm in 1927, the property possessed a unique feature separate from the beauty we described in the paragraph above. The farm had its own natural gas well! The farmhouse was heated with natural gas year-round at NO cost to the new owners. The small gas well was located in a field a few hundred feet from the farm house. Memories surrounding the gas well are still vivid. I recall family Christmas gatherings where the natural gas fireplace burned brightly. The entire home was heated by natural gas. In spring my grandfather boiled large quantities of maple sap from his many sugar maple trees using the natural gas supply from beneath the earth on his farm.

On several occasions the gas well needed to be “recharged.” The process involved “flaring,” in which excess pressurized gas was burned off. The flare was ignited by the well repair workmen when the pressurized gas bubbled up through a large puddle of water into the air. Watching a plume of fire burning directly from a puddle of water next to the well was a memorable experience. My research into early Baldwinsville gas wells revealed that this well may have been drilled in 1890 and may have been 1200 to 3000 feet deep. My search revealed that Gustav Leopold was a well driller from Pennsylvania who was summoned to Baldwinsville and later bought a house which was heated by a natural gas well drilled by him. It is possible that this was my grandparents’ farmhouse purchased in 1927. A New York State agency was recently contracted to cap old, non-working gas wells to mitigate their environmental hazard.

I have recently discovered that Baldwinsville was located at the far northern fringe of a sedimentary rock layer known as the Marcellus Shale. Only in the past 20 years has the Marcellus Shale formation achieved substantial national publicity because it has potential to supply huge amounts of natural gas to our energy hungry populace. It is now recognized as the largest field of natural gas in the US. The full potential of the Marcellus Shale was not recognized before the turn of the 21st century. Gas wells such as the one on my grandfather’s farm in the mid-20th century rarely produced commercial amounts of gas even though it tapped into the Marcellus Shale formation.

My childhood home town was only 14 miles from the town of Marcellus, NY for which the Marcellus shale formation was named. This vast geologic region includes much of New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, West Virginia, and small parts of a few other states. It is an ancient Devonian rock layer formed long before the age of dinosaurs by water deposition of organic sediments—fossil plants, algae, and zooplankton. When such deposits are eventually buried deep beneath the surface of the earth and heated under pressure, chemical changes take place. New organic hydrocarbon compounds are formed. Natural gas is mostly methane with smaller amounts of other hydrocarbons. It is trapped within the shale but release and recovery is possible. A process known as hydraulic fracturing of the rock has been used to free the gas.

Recent discovery of the energy potential of the Marcellus Shale is a source of amazement. Theologically, we might consider the presence of a plentiful energy supply beneath earth’s surface as one example of the providential care of our timeless Creator for the human race. With respect to such a recent knowledge discovery, we are instructed that God gives humanity the ability to enlarge his knowledge, especially in our day of energy and environmental concerns. Man’s technological ability to discover prudent remedies for potential deleterious effects of fossil fuel consumption is constantly increasing. Perhaps the movement to wean ourselves from carbon in favor of less practical solar and wind power at the cost of trillions of dollars is a badly misdirected campaign. As a starter, we posit that transition to plentiful natural gas fuels reduces emissions of CO2 substantially. Research and development of carbon capture technologies for other fossil fuels, petroleum and coal, hold great promise.

Personally, I thank God I was privileged to glimpse a tiny slice of fossil fuel history by observing my grandparents’ natural gas well as a young child. Our human population has been providentially supplied with hundreds of minerals and energy sources. These resources sustain our modern society. It is only one example of the love showered on mankind by the Creator of All Things.         




Monday, June 10, 2019

Ecclesiastes: The Preacher's Scientific Musings

The Old Testament contains several Books of Wisdom, including the Book of Ecclesiastes. The meaning of Ecclesiastes is sometimes rendered “the Teacher” or “the Preacher.” Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation, calls Solomon, the book’s probable writer, “the Quester,” because of the experiential stance of the writing in the book, giving voice to what is so basic among men and women throughout history. The author experiences a ‘quest,’ an active search for answers to profound observations concerning his life experiences. Some commentary consists of insightful, empirical observation about the world of nature.

Inspiration for our current post comes from the devotional for June 8, 2019 in the popular daily publication Our Daily Bread. The application section applied a lesson from the bowling alley where routine tasks must be repeated again and again. Bowling pins must be reset time and again. Many mundane tasks such as laundry, cooking, and mowing the lawn must be repeated, seemingly endlessly. The musings of Solomon are ambivalent in his Book of Wisdom. On one hand he complains about common cycles, expressing disappointment, doubt, discouragement, and even despair about the way things are, sometimes categorizing ordinary events of life as “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Eugene Peterson colorfully paraphrases such repetitive events “…nothing but smoke—and spitting into the wind.”

An alternative interpretation of Solomon’s writings may be that he approached some daily cycles with realism and resignation, if not humor. Even in chapter 1 he observes, “What has been done will be done again: there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl.1:9 NIV.) Surely Solomon and his subjects were richly blessed by natural astronomical and meteorological cycles. In a day several thousands of years before the Scientific Revolution, the Quester took note of life sustaining phenomena such as the sun’s daily (diurnal) motion, atmospheric circulation, and the water cycle. His empirical analysis of these daily life-sustaining features of our environment argues against Solomon’s sometimes depressing observations. Solomon’s underlying respect for the majesty and righteousness of the Creator shines through his sometimes pessimistic tone. 

Solomon was a ‘preacher’ or ‘teacher.’ He was not a scientist in modern terms, but his  insights were scientific in terms of his observational skills. What did the ancients believe about the motion of the Sun which rises and sets and “hurries back to where it rises?” Until the Scientific Revolution, many ancients still believed in geocentrism: The Earth was the center of the universe and the Sun, Moon, and other planets revolved around the Earth. Many ancient people even believed in a flat earth. Many who did not subscribe to a flat earth had difficulty believing that the earth rotates since it seemed unreasonable that we would not “feel” the earth rotating at hundreds of miles per hour. This was within the scope of Solomon’s observational abilities. However, it was long before the days of humanity’s grasp of real vs apparent motion and their cause and effect relationship with respect to astronomical bodies.

In the arena of atmospheric circulation, our Quester was prescient in recognizing the meteorological cycles inherent in Earth’s wind flow. “The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course,” Solomon observed. In a more complex insight, we sense how deeply he mused about the sequence of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and the return flow of liquid water back to the sea from where it originated. We now speak of the modern water cycle, also known as the hydrological cycle.

Another scientific insight is presented in Chapter 3:1-8. Nine consecutive verses begin with the subject of time. The author claims there is an appropriate time frame for every human activity “under heaven.” Time is a linear dimension. As such, it is a scientific concept. Implanted along the dimension of time, according to Solomon, is the overarching flow of human experience as we strive to give temporal and eternal meaning to our lives.  

Other examples of physical recycling appear periodically within the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes. A poignant example is the ultimate temporal fate of physical death for all in this world, both men and animals. In Eccl. 3:19-20 we read, “Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both; as one (an animal) dies, so dies the other (man)…..All go to the same (physical) place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Along the pathway of life we are made aware of the relentless progress of senescence, the tendency of the human body to deteriorate physiologically as old age approaches. Senescence is an intrinsic characteristic of all living things in the firm grip of the Law of Entropy. Read about the approach of human senescence in the poetic description of the onset of old age in Eccl. 12:1-7.

In later chapters, Solomon offers hope. He offers “…the conclusion of the matter” in Eccl. 12:13: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” This advice overpowers the temporary discouragement experienced in our personal quest for life’s meaning.